“That little four acres you’re protecting is a tiny spot”

Based on what happened in Dimock, it might be overly optimistic to assume that decisions by individual landowners about risk even matter. In one respect, natural gas drilling makes property lines more readily apparent, determining how many acres a landowner can lease (and, thus, how much money he can make) and where gas wells can be constructed. However, in another respect, drilling blurs property lines, making them less meaningful: as is apparent in Dimock, one person’s decision can have a drastic impact on what happens to his neighbors.

For example, as many of the residents of Carter Road and the surrounding area learned, a family could not avoid the effects of a “defective” well merely by having no wells on their property. In fact, more than two thirds of the families identified in the original November DEP/Cabot Consent Order did not have any drilling on their own property. For these families, nothing they might have done could have saved their property; everything was out of their control.

Such was the case for the Carters. Even if the Carters had not leased, they would not have been spared from any of what they have gone through. The well just four hundred feet from their trailer that, while being constructed, lit up the night and was never quiet and that, now, audibly emits gas into the air at regular intervals and has the Carters worried about their health is not even on their property. The Carters had absolutely no say in whether it would be built, where it would be built, or whether they would have to live next to an industrial site. Their destiny was completely out of their own hands.

In fact, realizing that their own feelings about whether or not drilling should take place were irrelevant was what prompted the Carters to lease in the first place. “He [the landman who approached the Carters with a lease offer] said, ‘The land is all leased all the way around you,’” Carter recalled. “I said, ‘What happens if we don’t sign?’ He said, ‘They’re going to drill under you and take the gas from under your property anyway.’ And I got to think, ‘Well, what the hell, if they’re going to take the gas, I might as well get something out of it someway,’ and that’s when we signed the lease agreement.”

Similar thinking contributed to the Elys’ decision to lease. When the Elys leased in October 2009, after the problems on Carter Road were already widely known, they were concerned about their water well but realized that holding out would not save them if something went wrong. “For a little plot of four acres, if all your neighbors around you have signed, you know, [and a problem happens,] your environment has been affected; that little four acres you’re protecting is a tiny spot,” Mrs. Ely said.

Even people like DePaolo who own bigger patches of land saw no point in struggling against what seemed inevitable. “Some people say, ‘Oh, you’re so wrong to get it [a lease],’” DePaolo said. “I say, they’re going to drill for the gas anyway; somebody’s going to lease to them. And then the thing is, unless they go under your property, you don’t get anything, so you have to put up with all this noise and traffic and everything for nothing. Well, I said, as long as they’re going to be drilling in this area—and this seems to be a concentrated center—we might as well get in on it.”

The Marcellus Shale drilling boom has left landowners in communities targeted by drilling companies with no real choice. Even for those who would prefer drilling to not impact their lives, refusing to sign a lease is not a viable option. As long as any person in a landowner’s community decides the benefits are worth the risks and signs, the landowner cannot do anything to stop the drilling. He can turn down the economic benefits by holding out, but even if he does, he cannot avoid the impacts and risks that result from the drilling, so it makes no sense to hold out. The decision to sign a lease is thus largely symbolic, since drilling would impact a landowner’s life regardless of whether or not he signed. In effect, in drilling communities, what happens on a landowner’s private property is largely out of his control. If the policy that industry groups call “fair pooling” and others call “forced pooling” comes into effect, the landowner would have even less control; such a system would group landowners into units, and if enough of a unit leased to a company, the company could force the rest to allow drilling under their property as well.

In light of the seeming inevitability of drilling, the current system of individual landowners making decisions and then dealing with the consequences is inadequate. If drilling continues to spread at its current pace, all but the largest landowners will have little power to make decisions that actually matter—only the false choice of whether or not to accept benefits from drilling that will happen in one’s community anyway. Furthermore, as is apparent in Dimock, drilling’s consequences do not respect property lines. After drilling’s arrival, communities are left to debate whether or not the results have been beneficial, but the debate is largely meaningless, because the drilling has already arrived and will not go away no matter how people come to feel about it. The decision to drill had already been made by the drilling company more so than the community. Communities will only ever be able to attain a true choice of whether or not to accept drilling if changes are made at the systematic level of state government.

Unless that happens, perhaps the only thing people can do is try to make the most of the current system, engaging in community networks to make sense of often limited information and uncertainties in what is still a new region for a relatively new specialty industry. Rather than fighting a losing battle by resisting drilling categorically, people can make every effort to ensure that drilling is done as safely as possible by pushing for stronger safety regulations and more funding and staff for the DEP. Drilling has its positives and negatives, and people can debate which are more compelling, but endeavoring to increase safety can break through the ambivalence and benefit everyone. People can also make sure, if they do decide to lease, to negotiate the best possible terms with the drilling company by making sure to understand the leases thoroughly and making adjustments like adding in environmental protections, and increasing the minimum distance from inhabited homes. Above all, landowners—especially those with the most land—and the communities of which they are a part need to understand the long-term consequences of supposedly private decisions. Developing regional networks of residents and organizations can help share information and apply pressures as needed, as traditional notions of private property and community face new stresses.

In Dimock, residents speculate about how their community will emerge from the drilling boom. Some are hopeful that the problems on Carter Road will not prefigure similar events to come. “I think that the people on Carter Road did us all a service by sticking with their story until something was done,” Mrs. Ely said. “And I think that having people like the people on Carter Road will give enough publicity to it [the risk] to keep the gas company’s feet to the fire and make them do it [drill] correctly, we hope.” “We’ll see how it comes out,” DePaolo said. “Another ten years from now we’ll know what the true impact was, I guess. You know, it’s going to take a little time; that’s what I would say.” But in the meantime, he is hopeful for what drilling can bring to the community. “I’m kind of an optimist,” he said. “I like to try to see the glass half full.”

But from Carter Road iteslf—the road itself now restored, the ruts remediated, the truck traffic gone, and the quietness returned at least for now; but the water problems, emotional scars and deserted well pads still remaining—Sautner offers bleaker thoughts. “One well contaminated is one well too many; that’s the way I look at it,” he said. “I have seen a lot more money coming into the community. But at what price, you know?” He said he had attended a town hall meeting in New York state one time where the leader of a landowner’s association was speaking. “Somebody asked him, ‘If you had one hundred wells drilled in this area right now, and say there was five wells that got contaminated, what do you think; would that be okay?’” Sautner recalled. “And he said, ‘Sure, that’d be fine.’ So I finally asked him, I said, ‘You said it wouldn’t bother you.’ I said, ‘What about, do you go home to clean water every day?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Well, what about if it was your well?’”

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